Refuting Mythicist Appeals to Justin Martyr
It is frequently claimed by modern mythicists that denial of the historicity of Jesus is not a product of modern skepticism but was present even as early as the 2nd century. One example frequently appealed to is the Jew named Trypho, whose debate with the Christian apologist Justin Martyr is recorded in the ‘Dialogue with Trypho. (See for example Dorothy Murdock, Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha, and Christ Revealed, (Kempton: Adventures Limited Press, 2004), 204)
Chapter 8 of the Dialogue consists of Trypho’s rebuttal to Justin as follows:
“If, then, you are willing to listen to me (for I have already considered you a friend), first be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God. But Christ - if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere - is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing."
It is claimed that this passage represents early mythicism, in that Trypho denies the existence of Jesus. But it should be clear from the get-go that this is far from conclusive evidence. First, even if we were to concede to this claim, it does nothing more than show that one Jewish mythicist existed in the mid-2nd century. This has no bearing on whether or not Jesus actually existed. Just because someone believed it does not invalidate the historical Jesus nor does it add to the plausibility of the mythicist position.
Second, it is evident that Trypho is discussing the “Christ” in this passage as a concept. Trypho, as implied by what he goes on to say, does not believe that the Christ has been born yet, and if he has, the individual who is the Christ does not know that he is the Christ until he is anointed by Elijah. Trypho is most likely simply saying that Christ has not made himself known to the Jews yet, and is not necessarily talking about the historical figure of Jesus.
And third, most significantly, the identity of Trypho throws a major wrench in this argument. Scholars such as Amos Hulen have affirmed that Trypho was nothing more than a literary invention of Justin created in order for the apologist to lay out his arguments (‘The ‘Dialogues with the Jews’ as Sources for the Early Jewish Argument Against Christianity’ Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 51, (1932), 63). This view has been affirmed more recently by Larry Heyler, who says that “Most scholars accept that Trypho is a fictional character created to suit Justin’s literary purpose” (Larry Heyler, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Studies, (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2002), 493).
So even if it can be gleaned that Trypho was a mythicist, Trypho was himself probably an invented character. Instead of investigating Trypho as a real person, then, scholars rather investigate whether Justin transmits accurate allegations made by Jews against Christians. But they are very divided on this matter: L. W. Barnard (‘The Old Testament and Judaism in the Writings of Justin Martyr’, Vetus Testamentum Vol. 14 (1964), 406) and P. Sigal (‘An Inquiry into Aspects of Judaism in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho’, Abr-Nahrain Vol. 18 (1978-79), 75) affirm that Justin fairly accurately represents Jewish anti-Christian polemics in the second century. However, Graham Stanton (‘Aspects of Early Christian-Jewish Polemic and Apologetic’, New Testament Studies Vol. 31, Issue 3 (1985), 377-92) argues that Justin only knew some genuine allegations made by Jews against Christianity, and Robert Wilde affirms that Justin only knew about Jews and Judaism from the Septuagint (Robert Wilde, The Treatment of the Jews in the Greek Christian Writers, (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1949), 104). So we cannot say with any certainty that the words of Trypho in the Dialogue reflect actual Jewish polemics from the 2nd century or were nothing more than rhetorical punching bags set up by Justin for him to levy his arguments against.
But assuming that Trypho is a real person and that he does represent the polemics of 2nd century Judaism against Christianity, what does he actually believe about the historicity of Jesus? The above quote is just one statement made by Trypho in a book that is 142 chapters long. Mythicists fail to take into account everything else that Trypho says concerning Jesus. Here are just a few statements where Trypho unequivocally affirms the historicity of Jesus:
Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 10:
“…you, professing to be pious, and supposing yourselves better than others, are not in any particular separated from them, and do not alter your mode of living from the nations, in that you observe no festivals or sabbaths, and do not have the rite of circumcision; and further, resting your hopes on a man that was crucified, you yet expect to obtain some good thing from God.”
“These and such like Scriptures, sir, compel us to wait for Him who, as Son of man, receives from the Ancient of days the everlasting kingdom. But this so-called Christ of yours was dishonourable and inglorious, so much so that the last curse contained in the law of God fell on him, for he was crucified.”
“Sir, it were good for us if we obeyed our teachers, who laid down a law that we should have no intercourse with any of you, and that we should not have even any communication with you on these questions. For you utter many blasphemies, in that you seek to persuade us that this crucified man was with Moses and Aaron, and spoke to them in the pillar of the cloud; then that he became man, was crucified, and ascended up to heaven, and comes again to earth, and ought to be worshipped.”
“But if some, even now, wish to live in the observance of the institutions given by Moses, and yet believe in this Jesus who was crucified, recognizing Him to be the Christ of God, and that it is given to Him to be absolute Judge of all, and that His is the everlasting kingdom, can they also be saved?”
The first quotation we gave from Chapter 8 would appear to make Trypho seem like some kind of mythicist. But in these chapters, he unmistakably affirms the earthly, physical nature of Jesus. His statements concerning Jesus largely deal with the notion of God becoming man, getting crucified, and the defying the messianic expectations. He does not deny the crucifixion as an event, rather the theological idea that God could become a man and then be crucified by his own creation.
Trypho also appears to contradict himself frequently during his dialogue, thus lending credence to the idea that Justin invented him for rhetorical purposes. In Chapter 72 he states:
“The Scripture has not, 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,' but, 'Behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son,' and so on, as you quoted. But the whole prophecy refers to Hezekiah, and it is proved that it was fulfilled in him, according to the terms of this prophecy. Moreover, in the fables of those who are called Greeks, it is written that Perseus was begotten of Danae, who was a virgin; he who was called among them Zeus having descended on her in the form of a golden shower…”
This passage could be construed as reading like Trypho believed the Christians stole from pagan myths, but reading the rest of the passage shows this to not be the case:
“And you ought to feel ashamed when you make assertions similar to theirs, and rather [should] say that this Jesus was born man of men. And if you prove from the Scriptures that He is the Christ, and that on account of having led a life conformed to the law, and perfect, He deserved the honour of being elected to be Christ, [it is well]; but do not venture to tell monstrous phenomena, lest you be convicted of talking foolishly like the Greeks.”
Trypho merely finds it distasteful that the narrative of Jesus, in his mind, was somewhat similar to the stories of pagan gods. He instead suggests that Justin and the Christians should rather say that Jesus was “born man of men.”
Trypho therefore affirms that:
- Jesus was born
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- His crucifixion was a result of him supposedly violating the “law of God”
- The Christians believed in a bodily resurrection, ascension, and eventual return of Jesus to the earth which he had walked
Again, even if after all of this we were to grant that Trypho both existed and was a mythicist, this is only the attitude of one individual. There is no evidence from any other early anti-Christian polemicists (e.g., Porphyry or Celsus) that there was any doubt concerning the historicity of Jesus during this time. There were attacks on the writings about Jesus, for sure, but the existence of the man himself was evidently not questioned.
Unfortunately, the appeals to Justin Martyr for mythicist evidence do not stop at Trypho. Other mythicists have frequently cited Justin’s First Apology Chapter 21 where Justin says “…we [Christians] propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.”
The mythicists once again fail to understand Justin Martyr himself. He was raised in a pagan home and was taught pagan philosophy before his conversion to Christianity. Do you really think that he would have converted if he thought that Christianity was just another mystery religion? Would he go out of his way in Chapter 23 of his Apology to affirm the exclusive truthfulness of his new religion if he believed it was influenced by other myths? This is highly unlikely. Rather, his writings reveal an attempt to set up a positive dichotomy between the ideas of the pagans and the Christians.
As Richard Plantinga says, “Justin was forced by his conversion to Christianity to seek connection between his pagan, philosophical past and his Christian, theological present. This biographical quest would come to expression as he sought to mediate between the worlds of Greek and Christian thought” (Richard Plantinga, ‘God So Loved the World: Theological Reflections on Religious Plurality in the History of Christianity’, in David Baker (ed.), Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment, (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2004), 108).
The context of the passage in the Apology reveals the reason why Justin appeals to narratives about other gods to defend the gospel narratives. In chapter 21, Justin gives the parallels that he sees between Christianity and the mystery religions. What is avoided by the mythicists is what follows. At the end of chapter 21, he points out the differences between the Christian God and the gods of the mystery religions, saying that Jupiter:
“…was both a parricide and the son of a parricide, and that being overcome by the love of base and shameful pleasures, he came in to Ganymede and those many women whom he had violated and that his sons did like actions.” Justin draws an explicit distinction between his God and their gods.
He goes on to say in chapter 24:
“…though we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ, and though we do no wrong, are put to death as sinners; other men in other places worshipping trees and rivers, and mice and cats and crocodiles, and many irrational animals. Nor are the same animals esteemed by all; but in one place one is worshipped, and another in another, so that all are profane in the judgment of one another, on account of their not worshipping the same objects. And this is the sole accusation you bring against us, that we do not reverence the same gods as you do…”
And also in chapter 26:
“…because after Christ's ascension into heaven the devils put forward certain men who said that they themselves were gods; and they were not only not persecuted by you, but even deemed worthy of honours.”
It is very clear was Justin is doing here. The Christians were under persecution and Justin wished to show the hypocrisy of the Romans in their selectiveness on who they dispensed punishments. The Christians were persecuted for their perceived “strange” religious practices, but other pagans and magicians, who worshipped gods that were licentious, lustful, and murderous, were lauded and celebrated.
Even if after this clarification we were to admit that Justin was simply asserting that his religion was the same as pagan religions, as mythicists claim, why should we believe him? It is quite interesting that mythicists appeal to Justin for their evidence, but will no doubt discard his statements that are of value to modern Christian apologetics, such as his testimonies that the Gospels were written by the apostles. The selective usage of Justin’s writings to further the mythicist position, whilst simultaneously ignoring others that would invalidate their positions elsewhere, shows the inconsistency and dishonesty of this argument.
J. Gresham Machen’s observation puts it well: "We should never forget that the appeal of Justin Martyr and Origen... to the pagan stories of divine begetting is an argumentum ad hominem. ‘You hold,’ Justin and Origen say to their pagan opponents, ‘that the virgin birth of Christ is unbelievable; well, is it any more unbelievable than the stories you yourselves believe?’" (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 330)
The appeals to Justin for mythicist evidence are gross misrepresentations of his work. Thus we have no reason to believe that mythicism was an early idea nor that early Christians consciously believed that their religion was stealing aspects of pagan religions.
Justin Martyr Works: https://www.amazon.com/Writings-Justin-Martyr/dp/1933993464
In conversing with others on the concerning topics of apologetics, there are times we do not know how to conduct those conversation successfully. Sometimes, these conversations turn into cordial debates and other times turn into dumpster fires. In Tactics, Greg Koukl goes over many different strategies for turning any conversation to go your way and to turn into the healthy, cordial debates we all want to participate in. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how to respond to each person (Colossians 4:6). This is the selected theme verse from Saint Paul to set the course of Tactics.
This article will be a top five selection review of strategies that Koukl gives us to use. The main goal in debate is to get in the driver’s seat and at minimum, be given the wheel at some point. It must be noted that these selected strategies will not always work but will help you stay out of unproductive conversation while still giving others the principle of charity. The principle of charity is rationally interpreting someone’s point as much as you can while not sacrificing your points. There are always arguments and there are always fights.
One prerequisite that must be addressed, is the claim that people are not argued into the kingdom. Christians who say people are not argued into the kingdom clearly mean fought into. People most certainly can be rationally persuaded to believe something as true, but the decision of the heart is ultimately on their end. “Imagine living in a world in which you couldn’t distinguish between truth and error (31).”
Let us push this thought experiment even further, imagine a world in which we could not advance in knowledge and correction? Point being that without healthy disagreements through argumentation and conversation, we get nowhere with others or ourselves, there would not be advancement in human understanding. Without the right understanding of God being displayed eloquently to the non-believer, how can you even expect them to accept Christ as Lord?
Strategy #1: The Columbo Tactic
When having these conversations, many claims and assertions will be made. As the people pleaser I use to be, I felt the need to always try and refute every claim thrown at me. When this is done, you are taking on all the shots at once and giving none in return. Koukl gives us a brilliant tactic to use when dealing with shot gun blasting assertions. It consists of three simple questions and gives you the driver seat.
What do you mean by that? This question will help catch equivocation fallacies, known as using the same word but two different meanings. It also helps you fire back by just getting people to define what they are saying. Much of the time, people do not know what they mean. They will just throw out nice words with no definitions. One time, I was in a google hangout call with some Christians friends and an atheist. The atheist was saying that Christianity defies logic and all of this. I asked him to define logic, he could not give me a definition. Logician Patrick Hurley’s definition of Logic consists of “Logic may be defined as the organized body of knowledge, or science, that evaluates arguments (A Concise Introduction to Logic, 1).”
The point being, that I did not have to unpack every claim made of Christianity, but rather took control over the conversation rather fast. The gentleman then proceeded to attack me personally by calling me petty and that he never wanted to talk to me again. I get that a lot when just applying this tactic because people sometimes do not like their share of the burden of proof, which at minimum requires you to know what your own claim means. This also helps with time management since if someone does not want to define their terms, they have forfeited the principle of charity and our time of dialogue.
How did you come to that conclusion? If one has their terms defined, then that is a step further into the conversation. “Never make a frontal assault on a superior force in an entrenched position (66)?” If someone is making conclusions that either confuse you or may even be advanced for you to follow, step back and ask them to explain how they got to that state of belief. Explanation is the bedding to good conclusion, being able to connect your evidence with what you conclude.
Three things could happen next. First, you will get a good explanation that you will be able to follow. Second, they may have chicken scratch reasoning with what was concluded so ad hoc reasoning will take place. If this is the case, you can just start asking this second question to new drawn conclusions that come from this ad hoc reasoning. Finally, you will catch them during a mere assertion since they are not able to explain the rational to their conclusion.
“Instead of having our critics have a free ride, we make them defend their own beliefs or unbelief, as the case may be (70).” Literally, the best defense is to step back, let them make the move and make them reinforce that move. Questions help catch weak moves and to help not repeat that move. Make them have the burden since they have all these conclusions, land in the driver’s seat by just trying to understand first.
Have you considered…? You will most likely only get to this step if you are dealing with a rationally minded person. Allegedly Aristotle claimed: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” This is what the third step of the Columbo tactic strives to do. Consider a question or idea that can challenge your view without the need to fleet it out of your stream of thought. At least, to see if you can even engage with someone to consider themselves wrong or accept something new.
“Have you ever considered…that the existence of evil is actually evidence for the existence of God, not against it (84).” What is done here is to suggest the common notion that evil is reason to doubt God’s existence, but to at least ask could it be evidence for God’s existence? Then this allows the opportunity to present your flavor of a moral argument that fits appropriately to the conversation.
Another key point to achieve is to point out a weakness in someone’s position or argument. Here’s a model of the tactic to show this: “Let me suggest an alternative and tell me if you think it’s an improvement. If not, you can tell me why you think your option is better (86).” This also allows you to practice the principle of charity, which states to adopt the most rational view of your opponent’s position. This is also a way for you personally, to help avoid childish banter in these conversations. Once you point out the weakness and consideration has been considered, correction comes next if it is on your side and then puts you in the driver’s seat.
Tactic #2 & 3: Point out Practical Suicide and Just The Facts Ma’am
I was at the waiting line at Walmart and noticed a shirt. It said on the back: “imagination is better than knowledge”. I instantly went up to the guy wearing it and asked him: Don’t you need knowledge to imagine”? He had no option but to agree and we both laughed about it. Not going to lie, I felt satisfied that day. This is what it means to point out practical suicide.
This is such a common tactic that is not applied enough, sometimes we let people say what they want without correction. True is truth no matter what we say, but people can be fooled into believing very contradictory statements. Do it with sense and honor but push people towards to seeing their inconsistencies so they may be consistent. It is a lover of wisdom’s job to point these things out. Other examples like “there is no truth”, “true for you true for me” are good references to understand this tactic more.
One thing that must be pointed out by using one tactic, is “just the facts ma’am”. Koukl claims: “The first is a desire to affirm the Bible. The second is a suspicion Darwinism might have merit. Thus, they declare both (117).” This is claimed about Theistic Evolutionists, but here is one simple fact. There is a new view not just affirmed by Christians, but rather even biologists. This is called process structuralism that questions much of Darwinian assumptions about Evolution. Christians will take this as evidence for intelligent design, meaning the evolution needed fine-tuning to get speciation to where it is today. Not having all the facts is practical suicide.
People who have confidence in todays’ world are those who hold the “facts”. If something is said with high confidence, it is either because it’s a true/rational belief, or someone is full of themselves. Either way, confidence can be intimidating since that will control and guide the conversation. This is where it is important to just state what the facts are when you know you are right. A bold assertion by many people with confidence is the idea that Christianity was not a core belief among the founding fathers.
Koukl shreds this to pieces with literally just the facts, the claim was only significant because the person’s confidence gave the claim more merit. “Among the delegates were twenty-eight Episcopalians, eight Presbyterians, seven Congregationalists, two Lutherans, two Dutch Reformed, two Methodists, two Romans Catholics, one unknown, and only three deists-Williamson, Wilson, and Franklin (178-179).” 51 out of 55 of the Constitutional Convention were Christian, not so-called Deists as many people with confidence want to claim. State the facts with confidence and you will come out on top.
Tactic #4: Handling Steamrollers
The terrorists of conversations are these kind, those who emotionally and aggressively take charge. This is where Koukl describes “rational reasons can be a barrier to belief”. Some people must be aggressive and make others submit to their bully like tactics. All it takes is for someone to be put into the people pleaser position for them to lose any ground in the conversation. It is not your duty to satisfy everyone’s’ needs in these conversations. It is your duty to answer peoples’ questions with the truth, with gentleness and respect, not with weakness.
The steamrollers are not looking to have their questions answered, they are looking to control a conversation to feel more confident in their beliefs. Do not figure out their motives, that plays into their hand and their playing field. Believe it to be so, when someone treats you like that, they are acting as if they are your enemy with such aggression. Koukl describes such people well but how he asserts we should respond on page 161 is the wrong approach.
His tactics presuppose that such people are willing to do the right thing. With such aggression, do not expect but rather expect the opposite. We are talking about truth not just opinions so there must be shrewdness and fortitude deployed. He also suggests the tactic to shame them, do not. Such people will be even more aggressive when you make them think they are doing something wrong. These set of scriptures in their context show this:
So don’t even bother to correct a mocker, for he’ll only hate you for it. But go ahead and correct the wise; they’ll love you even more. Teach a wise man what is right and he’ll grow even wiser. Instruct the lovers of God and they’ll learn even more (Proverbs 9:8-9).”
"Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces (Matthew 7:6).”
“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet (Matthew 10:4).”
Tactic #5: Tacking Off The Roof
Taking off the roof is simply taking a claim or worldview to where it leads.
1. First, reduce the person’s point of view to its basic argument, assertion, principle, or moral point.
2. Second, mentally give the idea a “test drive” to see where it leads.
3. Third, if you find a problem, point it out. (146)
What must be taken into consideration is that some views can be either vague and ultimately meaningless, or complex and thought out. For both, you must get terms and definitions, or you will not be able to map out what they are saying. What should be a goal to accomplish is to pull a steelman with this tactic. That is where you make your opponent’s position stronger and take off the roof on that proposition.
The problem of evil is asserted quite often from a naturalist worldview. Evil is more likely on a naturalist model of reality than a theistic one. However, lead to where naturalism suggests about good and evil. On theism you have these categories so well defined in ontological discussion, yet on naturalism, there really is no such thing ontologically or even categorically evil. What is not being claimed here that the naturalist has no standard of good to call something evil, rather these categories cannot even be assessed in meaningful conversation. If a naturalist even offers evil as an internal critique, they have no truth markers for such propositions.
A stronger naturalist position is a defense of moral realism, however, there usually is not a metaphysical explanation for why we know moral facts and duties. Ethics without metaphysics may not be psychologically useless, but it is consistently useless for inserting into a naturalist model of reality. The real absurdity that takes off the roof, is that the very thing you claim cannot exist on theism, cannot exist on the worldview you adopt in replacement of. A way of escape is to be an agnostic, not a naturalist. If you become an agnostic yet think evil categorically exists, why not become a skeptical theist, one who asserts we just don’t know why evil exists.
These five tactics employed currently are what one truly needs to rule a conversation if necessary and have healthy dialogue. Use the columbo tactic to flush out what terms mean in order to suggest new thoughts to your opponent. Point out the practical suicide that leads to contradictions or just the facts ma’am to avoid practical suicide. Avoid steamrollers and lead people to where the map of their worldview leads. Master these five tactics instead of mastering thirty. As a Bruce Lee once said: “I am not scared of a man who throws thousands of kicks, but rather a man who throws one kick a thousand times”.
Let wisdom, reason, & Integrity guide your thinking,
-Daniel James Hole
With modern day skepticism many of the classical proofs of God’s existence have been unfairly dismissed without any real engagement. And this is no truer than with the 5 ways of Thomas Aquinas which have been thoroughly dismissed by people such as Dawkins and Russel without any good reason. And so many of these proofs have in a sense therefore been thrown into the shadows in the Atheist community. And so in light of this I will seek to briefly present the strength of the case of Aquinas’s forgotten first way.
Aquinas begins by acknowledging a truth already discovered by Aristotle and deeply engrained into the surrounding culture of his time, as to the nature of motion. That when we talk of something in motion, we are describing something going from a potential, to an actual. Dr. Edward Feser, a Thomistic scholar explains this by the analogy of a cup of tea. When the cup of tea is hot it has the potential, that is the possibility to be, cold. And if the cup were to become cold, then it would become actually cold. And in this way we understand motion, as the actualization of a potential.
But some of the sceptics say, surely motion does not have to exist! But this is just absurdity. Can the person say that not in motion? Or can they think on what they are going to say without motion? Or even read the text in front of them? I think not, and if you think otherwise then you have proven the existence of motion. And so Aquinas starts on the firm ground to the existence of Motion and proceeds from there.
Continuing Aquinas questions to how anything is in motion. He points out how something just with the possibility to be cannot itself become actual. As the mere possibility to be does nothing on its own. A dog may have the possibility to run, sleep or lie down, however that does not causally tell you what becomes actual. And so their must exist something that is itself not potential that causes things to become actual, as no potential alone has that ability.
And so we are led inevitably to the question of what this thing must be that is not itself potential, but instead actualizes the potential. What we may call a ‘purely actual actualizer’, or as Aristotle called it, a ‘Unmoved Mover’. But the sceptics call out, this is not God! And to an extent they are correct, but only in the sense that we have not yet done a conceptual analysis as to the nature of this being.
So let us consider 4 qualities that this ‘unmoved mover’ must possess.
And so we come to conclude from Aquinas’s first way that this purely actual, unmoved mover must be a timeless, transcendent, all powerful being with at least one intellect. Something one may say sounds quite similar to God.
There are many routes one can go down to establish God’s existence. In this article, I will begin by presenting reasons to believe that there is a necessary part of reality. In doing so, this will allow us to probe the ultimate nature of this reality. Welcome to: Establishing a Necessary Existence.
In natural theology, these types of arguments are grouped into what are called “cosmological arguments'' which typically set out to prove a first cause. Cosmological arguments face four main problems, as Philosopher Alexander Pruss states, “The cosmological argument faces the Glendower, Regress, Taxicab, and Gap problems” (Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology 98). For a cosmological argument to be successful, it must deal with the four main problems. The argument I am setting out to defend is what is known as the “contingency argument”.
This was first formulated by Philosopher, Theologian, and Mathematician, Gottfried Von Leibniz. Unlike arguments such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Leibniz was not worried about the finitude of the past. Leibniz sought an explanation for why anything at all exists, and in doing so, one of the most fundamental philosophical questions was asked: “why is there something rather than nothing?” I believe we should seek to answer this question because it allows us to explore and investigate the deepest aspects of reality. I myself am interested in exploring this question and I think this argument helps us get as close as we can to that answer. Leibniz famously formulated an explanatory principle called the Principle of Sufficient Reason, otherwise known as the PSR. The PSR was also advocated by Spinoza.
In the Monadology, Leibniz defines the PSR as “...that of sufficient reason, by virtue of which we consider that we can find no true or existent fact, no true assertion, without there being a sufficient reason why it is thus and not otherwise, although most of the time these reasons cannot be known to us” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In basic terms, the PSR states that any fact has an explanation. Because of the principle’s intuitive nature, many have been led to conclude that it is a self-evident truth that undergirds reason itself. Even though the PSR seems to be uncontroversial, philosophers throughout history have challenged its validity. Contemporary defenders of the PSR like Dr. Alexander Pruss and Dr. Joshua Rasmussen have published work on the subject and have given good reasons to accept it.
Sophisticated versions of the PSR have been formulated and defended by contemporary philosophers to stipulatively mean that any contingent fact has an explanation. This version of the PSR is adequate for dealing with Glendower and regress problems. Pruss states “when I talk of the PSR, by “sufficient reasons” I mean reasons that are sufficient to explain the explanandum” (Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology). If the PSR were false we should expect wide-spread violations of it all around us, but in fact, we do not. The contingency argument takes into account the nature of explanation and how it relates to the causal order. I will not go through the pros and cons of the PSR or other explanatory principles; however, I do believe they suffice in establishing a necessary part of reality and I believe the PSR Pruss defends works just as well.
(P1) Every contingent fact concerning the existence of contingent things has an explanation.
(P2) If every contingent fact concerning the existence of contingent things has an explanation, then there is a necessary part of reality that explains the existence of the contingent things.
(P3) This necessary part of reality is what we call God.
(C) God exists.
The formulation of this syllogism is not complicated but the beauty is in its simplicity. The scope of this video does not go beyond establishing necessary existence. In a later video I will bridge the gap between a necessary being and God. Let's start with premise 1: this explanatory principle is concerned with the existence of contingent things. This explanatory principle can be seen as the PSR regarding the existence of things. But what are contingent things? Something is contingent when it could fail to exist or could exist in another way; they have imperfections and limitations.
Contingent things then depend on other things for their existence. To put it another way, contingent things are not self-existent. The converse of this would be something that is self-existent which is what we mean by necessary. We are familiar with contingent things in our everyday experience. Chairs, baseballs, planets, and bikes are all examples of things that exist contingently. They all depend on other things for their existence. Chairs don’t just exist; there are reasons as to why they exist rather than not. And there are reasons a chair takes on a particular shape, color, and size, as opposed to another.
What we are not familiar with are things popping into existence randomly. Contingent things depend on prior conditions for their existence. The entire enterprise of science examines the causal relationships of existing things and builds explanatory models about them. Pruss makes an interesting point concerning biological evolution, “But, intuitively, if one were not confident of something very much like the PSR, it would be hard to be justifiably confident that no biological features of the human species arose for no reason at all - say, that an ape walked into a swamp, and out walked a human, with no explanation of why”. So, it seems as reasonable as anything else to affirm that premise one is indeed true.
What about premise 2? If contingent things have explanations for why they exist, then what explains the totality of contingent things? Is it contingency all the way down or is there some sort of stopping point for contingent reality? This is where we encounter the infinite regress and other problems. As outlined in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, some might add that “...things are naturally contingent in that their continued existence is dependent on myriad factors including particle masses and fundamental forces, temperature, pressure, entropy level and so forth, but natural contingency does not suffice to establish things’ metaphysical contingency…” Many have argued that positing an infinite amount of contingent things will be sufficient to explain the existence of contingent things. I believe this reasoning is flawed.
Let’s refer to this as the no circularity principle. This refers to the idea that the quantity of things to be explained makes no difference. What is the relevant difference regarding explanation between 5 things and an infinite number of things? There doesn’t seem to be any. The nature of explanation remains the same for 5 things as it does for an infinite number of things. Simply increasing the amount of things that need to be explained does nothing to get rid of the need for things to be explained.
In actuality, you've made the problem more complex. Infinity adds another level of complexity and thus begs for even more of an explanation. Why are there an infinite number of things? The error comes in when you believe that the increase of dependent things eventually adds up to independence. This is one of the reasons why Philosopher Josh Rasmussen invokes the foundation theory. We face a construction error when we try to construct independence out of dependence.
Just like no amount of white tiles can create a purple floor, or no amount of prime numbers can create a prime minister, Dependent things will never all of a sudden become independent if one adds enough of them up. So there must be something that already is itself independent. This independent part of reality would be self-existent. So, an infinite regress doesn’t do anything to get rid of a foundation but actually calls for one.
Now, what happens if contingent reality is past-eternal? If contingent things have always been here, then doesn’t that remove the need for an explanation beyond itself? Not quite. Suppose in order to explain the existence of a given turtle, one posits not only a mother turtle, but an infinite number of mother turtles into the past. The infinite number of turtles would still require an outside explanation as to why an infinite number of turtles, rather than lions, or lizards. Our past-eternal set of contingent things suffers from the same problem as does the infinite regress. Age is an irrelevant difference regarding explanation. Extending the age of contingent things is not an explanation in and of itself. It’s not a relevant point. This too requires a foundation for its existence.
This is why the foundation theory is so useful, because it shows us that at metaphysical rock bottom there’s a necessary foundation that contingent reality depends on. Josh Rasmussen says “a fact concerning the existence of certain things cannot be adequately explained solely in terms of those very things, for that would be circular. The idea is that causally linking up things to one another does not answer why those very things ever existed at all. Why do those things exist (rather than different ones)?
Something other than those things seems to be needed if their existence is to be explained. If that’s so, then the existence of contingent things can only be explained by a Necessary Being” (Cosmological Arguments from Contingency). Recall that premise 3 of my argument states “this necessary part of reality is what we call God”. I have just outlined that contingent reality gets us to a self-existent part of reality, otherwise known as a necessary foundation. To get to God, I would need to bridge the gap from necessary existence which is not the scope of this video.
Now, some will object and say that this argument is guilty of the fallacy of composition. This fallacy states that it is a mistake to conclude since the parts have a certain property, the whole likewise has that property. For example, since all the bricks of the wall are small, that means the wall is small. The fallacy of composition is an informal fallacy and only applies in certain cases. There are instances where the parts are representative of the whole. For example, if the wall is made out of red bricks then the wall itself will be red. No amount of red brick could ever add up to a blue wall.
Bruce Reichenbach in Philosophy of Religion writes “If all contingent things in the universe, including matter and energy, ceased to exist simultaneously, the universe itself, as the totality of these things, would cease to exist. But if the universe can cease to exist, it is contingent and requires an explanation for its existence” (Philosophy of Religion 204). The fallacy of composition does not affect my argument since I am not reasoning from parts to wholes in this way. This would then rule out the possibility that the universe is the self-existent foundation.
There is still much more I could cover and many more objections I could respond to. In my next video, I will bridge the gap between necessary existence and God which will allow us to derive the traditional theistic attributes and show us a fundamentally new picture of theism. Thank you for reading.
The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology
Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview
How Reason Can Lead to God
Cosmological Argument (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Cosmological Arguments from Contingency
New Argument for a Necessary Being
In the Book of Acts, we see the miraculous conversion of Paul from a Christian persecutor into an apostle of Jesus Christ. But there are three accounts of his conversion in Acts that, on the surface, appear to be in conflict each other. (9:3-9, 22:6-11, 26:13-18)
Bart Ehrman brings this up as a supposedly irreconcilable contradiction: “…the three accounts present numerous contradictory details. In one version Paul’s companions do not hear the voice but they see the light; in another they hear the voice but do not see anyone. In one version they all fall to the ground from the epiphanic blast; in another they remain standing. In one version Paul is told to go on to Damascus, where a disciple of Jesus will provide him with his marching orders; in another he is not told to go but is given his instructions by Jesus. Clearly, we are dealing with narratives molded for literary reasons, not with disinterested historical reports.” (The Triumph of Christianity, pg. 51)
So how do we reconcile these issues with the account? First of all, let’s deal with the differences between the follower’s reactions to Paul’s vision of Jesus. Translations differ in Acts 22 on how Paul’s followers reacted to the vision. Many translations (NIV, ESV, NASB, ISV) render the Greek word being used here as “understand” instead of “hear.” So they would have heard what Jesus said to Paul, but were unable to interpret what he said.
Luke also uses the word “hear” in a similar way in Luke 6:27 - “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” He obviously uses the word “hear” to mean understand or listen with intent, so the word is interchangeable for it’s use in this passage. There are also various solutions to harmonize the accounts of the followers seeing the light. They would have seen the light, but not Jesus himself.
A second possibility is that Luke was simply quoting from Paul as he was recounting his conversion story in a quicker and less detailed account. We cannot simply assume that Paul had the correct information of his own conversion. Such an event would be pretty traumatic, and given that Paul did not eat or drink for three days after being blinded by the vision, the text would seem to imply such trauma. Can we really fault Paul for not remembering every aspect of his miraculous conversion?
A third solution is that Paul’s companions did not tell him that they had heard the voice. It’s possible they may have denied hearing it for fear of the implications of what they had heard. It should be noted how these followers disappear from the narrative after they deliver Paul to Damascus. It could be that, our of fear of persecution, they abandoned Paul and tried to convince themselves that they did not see what they saw. Then this information would have somehow gotten transferred to Luke who then included it in his accounts.
This does not mean that Luke was using faulty sources for his narrative, as he obviously would have noticed the differences between the accounts. This leads us to our fourth possibility which is that Luke was intentionally writing a contradiction in order to magnify Paul and put down the importance of his companions.
Ronald Witherup has done extensive research into this kind of literary method, known as “functional redundancy,” where a writer deliberately alters the narrative to keep his audience interested in the story. This was a common practice in Greco-Roman literature and so we should not be surprised when Acts does the same. (Ronald Witherup, "Functional Redundancy in the Acts of the Apostles" from Journal for the Study of the New Testament 48, 1992, pg. 67-86)
The next supposed contradiction is whether or not the followers were standing during the vision or knocked back. But this is a simple one to refute. J. B. Lightfoot argued that this passage is probably only an idiomatic expression that suggests that the followers were ‘frozen in their tracks’, not that they were physically standing up the entire time: “Here in Acts 9:7 — stood speechless, εἱστήκεισαν ἐνεοί, i.e. are arrested in the moment, all fell to the ground — the after effects, – ἡμῶν πάντων καταπεσόντων εἰς τὴν γῆν, Acts 26:14.” (The Acts of the Apostles: A Newly Discovered Commentary, 2014, pg. 150)
The last supposed contradiction is that Paul’s commission came from Jesus in one account, but came from Ananias in the others. But such an argument really begins to stretch the validity of the sceptics claims. One should give charity to the author of Acts and his literary license to telescope his accounts of Paul’s conversion. Luke has the all the freedom and authority to use functional redundancy in his accounts of Paul’s conversion.
As N. T. Wright points out, the differences are "…best explained by Luke's following a Hellenistic convention of style according to which variation in a narrative lends interest." (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 388)
So there are more than enough arguments to resolve these supposed contradictions in the Book of Acts. Some sceptics further claim that Acts contradicts Paul’s own words in Galatians chapter 1. But Ben Witherington points out that “One must recognize that Paul’s letters and Acts are different in genre, and thus simple comparisons do not take into account this difference and are not likely to prove satisfactory.” (The Acts of the Apostles, pg. 307)
Two accounts written about 2 decades apart, to different audiences, in different styles and for different purposes will obviously result in minor changes to the narrative, depending on who Paul and Luke were writing to. Such arguments stem from unnecessary skepticism that would never apply to any other piece of Greco-Roman literature.
Is the authenticity of the New Testament compromised by whether Paul’s followers were standing or fallen down? If this is the best the sceptic can do, then they have a lot of work ahead of them. So in short, there are no contradictions in the narrative of Paul’s conversion. They can easily be harmonized by taking into account the cultural, linguistic and literary context.